When a husband appealed of an award of attorney's fees in a divorce case, the California Court of Appeals for the Second District applied the "disentitlement doctrine" and dismissed the appeal outright. The husband's argument on appeal in Marriage of Hofer was that the trial court did not consider evidence of his own financial hardships when it ordered him to pay his wife's attorney's fees. The appellate court ruled that this lack of evidence was entirely due to the husband's own refusal to abide by the trial court's discovery orders.
John Hofer filed a petition for the dissolution of his marriage to Lisa Hofer in January 2009, after about eighteen years of marriage. John derived much of the family's income from several business entities owned by his family, in which he owned some interest. He exclusively managed these assets of the marriage. During the marriage, Lisa was never employed outside the home, so all income of the marriage came from John.
The Superior Court of Ventura County granted their divorce in 2010 after several prolonged discovery battles. At a hearing on Lisa's motion for attorney's fees, the court found that Lisa had incurred nearly $165,000 in attorney's fees, and that John had paid more than $47,000 of that amount for her. John had paid his attorneys more than $300,000. California law requires courts to make reasonable orders ensuring both parties have access to legal representation. Because Lisa had no resources or income of her own, and John had the apparent ability to pay at least $347,000 in attorney's fees, the court ordered John to pay an additional $200,000 towards Lisa's attorney's fees and costs. John appealed this ruling.
In its opinion dismissing John’s appeal, the Court of Appeals recounts the procedural history of the divorce and offers some harsh words to John. During discovery, the court found, John refused to comply with Lisa’s requests for information about the business entities in which he held ownership interests. The trial court granted Lisa’s motion to compel and ordered John to give a deposition. He first failed to appear for a deposition, then appeared without the financial documents. The court sanctioned him three separate times in the amounts of $7,500, $5,670, and $14,640. Eventually, a court-appointed referee recommended that the court give him one more chance to comply, and then prohibit him from offering evidence that the business interests were separate property.
John’s argument on appeal was that the trial court did not consider his financial situation. The appellate court was having none of this, ruling that “[John’s] refusal to abide by the rules for discovery precluded the trial court from considering the very evidence he claims is necessary to support the attorney fee award.” Opinion at 4. The disentitlement doctrine allows an appellate court to dismiss an appeal in cases where the appellant has violated or refused to obey orders from the lower court. On this basis, the court dismissed the appeal.
Thomas Huguenor, a divorce attorney certified in family law by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization, has 35 years of experience guiding the people of San Diego through the family law process. For a free and confidential consultation, contact us online or at (858) 458-9500.
More Blog Posts:
Electronic Discovery Helps Find Money Hidden by a Spouse During Divorce, San Diego Divorce Attorney Blog, May 3, 2012
California Divorce Report: Discovery of Income and Assets, San Diego Divorce Attorney Blog, January 13, 2011
California Divorce Appeal Granted, San Diego Divorce Attorney Blog, October 5, 2010